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News, October 2012
Fighting in Syria Continues, More Destruction and Civilian Deaths, Tensions Increase on Turkish Border
October 10, 2012
Suicide bombers hit security complex
(Reuters) / 9 October 2012
Rebel suicide bombers struck overnight at an Air Force Intelligence compound on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus overnight, killing or wounding at least 100 people, insurgents and activists said on Tuesday.
The militant group Al Nusra Front said it had mounted the attack because it was used a center for torture and repression in the crackdown on the 18-month-old revolt against President Bashar Al Assad.
“Big shockwaves shattered windows and destroyed shop facades. It felt as if a bomb exploded inside every house in the area,” said one resident of the suburb of Harasta, where the compound was located.
Activists living nearby said the bombing caused at least 100 casualties among security personnel, based on the number of ambulances that rushed to the scene and the enormity of the explosions.
No official casualty figure was given. Security forces cordoned off the area and deployed snipers along routes leading to it.
Rebel fighters have carried out a series of bombings of government and military buildings in Damascus in recent months, bringing the war to the heart of Assad’s power base.
The most notable was an attack on the National Security headquarters which killed the defence minister and two other senior security officials in July.
The latest bombing coincided with a series of rebel raids on roadblocks manned by Assad forces on a highway leading north from Harasta and in neighbourhoods of Damascus that have been at the forefront of the revolt, residents said.
Syrian warplanes also bombed areas near the town of Um Al Asafir on the edge of Damascus, and artillery pounded the suburb of Artous, killing at least one woman, according to opposition activists.
Residents and opposition activists said the attack set off huge explosions and was followed by a gun battle. Video footage taken by activists, which could not be independently verified, showed a large explosion.
“The decision was taken to hit Air Force Intelligence because it is one of the most notorious security divisions, and a citadel of repression whose extent is known only to God,” said an Al Nusra statement posted on social media.
The Airforce Intelligence unit is commanded by Brigadier General Jamil Hassan, one of Assad’s senior lieutenants, and is mostly made up of personnel from the president’s minority sect.
There was no information on whether Hassan was present during the attack.
Opposition activists said hundreds of Assad’s opponents have been imprisoned without charge and tortured in the Harasta complexes. —
What do border attacks mean?
(AP) / 9 October 2012
Syria’s cross-border attacks on Turkey in the past week look increasingly like they could be an intentional escalation meant to send a clear message to Ankara and beyond, that the crisis is simply too explosive to risk foreign military intervention.
With Turkey eager to defuse the crisis, the spillover of fighting is giving new life to a longshot political solution, with the Turks floating the idea of making President Bashar Al Assad’s longtime vice-president, Farouk Al Sharaa, interim leader if the president steps aside.
A military option — which would involve foreign powers that already have expressed a deep reluctance to getting involved in the crisis — is still not on the table, analysts say, despite six consecutive days of Turkish retaliation against bombardment from inside Syria.
“Syria is aware that Turkey cannot go a step further,” said Ali Tekin, assistant professor of International Relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University. “The Turkish people don’t want a war and there are no vital national interests at stake to warrant a war. Syria sees this.”
The Syrian conflict has taken a prominent role in the US presidential election at a time when the US and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved.
On Monday, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said the US should work with other countries to arm the Syrian rebels, allowing the rebels to drive Assad from power themselves. Romney did not call for the US to directly arm the Syrian rebels.
The most recent flare-up between Syria and Turkey started on Wednesday, when a shell fired from Syria slammed into a house in the Turkish border village of Akcakale, killing two women and three children.
That set off the most serious and prolonged eruption of violence along the frontier since the uprising began nearly 19 months ago.
Although it was not clear whether Wednesday’s shelling was intentional, Turkey responded swiftly by firing back and convening parliament for a vote that authorized further cross-border military operations if necessary.
“It’s not an accident. You can’t send shells across the border by mistake five days in a row,” said Mustafa Alani, a Middle East analyst of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre, just hours before Syrian shelling struck Turkey for a sixth day.
There have been no other reports of casualties from the shelling since Wednesday’s deaths.
According to Alani, the analyst, escalating the crisis serves as a reminder to Nato, Turkey and the West that Syria’s civil war can inflame the region with lightning speed.
The threat of a spillover is likely to pressure Western powers into drafting a political solution, part of which could involve Assad’s exit from power, rather than his being toppled by force.
A political solution, Alani said, could prevent Assad “ending up like Gaddafi.”
While Ankara maintains that the shells are coming from the regular Syrian army, Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think tank, did not exclude the possibility of “other sources, a rebel unit, firing across the border, trying to create conditions for Turkey to intervene in Syria.”
As the border skirmishes intensified over the weekend and the world began to consider whether Turkey would respond more forcefully, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to redirect attention away from the military developments.
On Saturday, Davutoglu said Syrian Vice President Farouk Al Sharaa was a figure “whose hands are not contaminated in blood” and therefore was a possible figure to head a transitional administration.
Abdulbaset Sieda, the head of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, said on Monday his group is willing to consider Ankara’s proposal.
Sieda’s comments appear to be a softening of the opposition’s stance that it will accept nothing less than the ouster of the Assad regime and the president’s inner circle.
But this apparent change in heart could be a way for the opposition to appease its Turkish allies rather than a major shift toward a political settlement of the conflict.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Al Zoubi scoffed at Davutoglu’s proposal, saying it reflects “obvious political and diplomatic confusion and blundering.” —
Blasts at Syria air force compound kill dozens: NGO
(AFP) / 9 October 2012
Twin attacks by suicide bombers on a Syrian air force compound near Damascus killed dozens of people, a watchdog said on Tuesday, adding that it feared for the safety of hundreds of prisoners being held there.
Turkey, meanwhile, again warned Syria that it would not hesitate to retaliate for any strike on its soil as the country’s top military commander visited troops stationed along the reinforced border.
And with fighting spilling across into both Turkey and Lebanon, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar Al Assad’s regime to declare a unilateral truce while NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged restraint by all parties.
Elsewhere on Syria’s increasingly violent battlefield, state television said troops entered the rebel district of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs and were ‘pursuing the remnants of the terrorists’ — the regime’s term for rebels.
There was no official comment on Monday night’s suicide attacks in the town of Harasta, northeast of the capital, but a security source told AFP the assault had been largely foiled, although several people were hurt when one vehicle blew up.
The attacks were claimed by the Al Nusra Front jihadist group, which said one attacker drove a booby-trapped car and a second an explosives-packed ambulance.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that ‘dozens of people’ died in the twin suicide bombings.
‘The fate of hundreds of prisoners being held in the basements of the (building) is still unknown,’ added Abdel Rahman.
‘The regime has not said a word about what happened last night. I hold the regime responsible for the fate of the prisoners. They shouldn’t be holding all of these people in the first place.’
Due to severe restrictions on journalists operating on the ground in Syria, AFP was not able to verify either of the widely differing accounts.
The Britain-based Observatory said the attacks sparked intense fighting in Harasta between rebels and the army, which at daybreak pounded the town with shells.
It said Syrian forces on Tuesday also rained shells down on rebel belts in the second city of Aleppo, which has been fiercely contested since mid-July, and in Idlib province near the Turkish border.
State television, meanwhile, said Syrian troops entered the rebel district of Khaldiyeh in the besieged central city of Homs on Tuesday.
But the Observatory said that while fighting was raging near the neighbourhood, it remained in rebel hands.
An activist in the embattled city confirmed that the army had ‘stormed part of Khaldiyeh.’
‘The catastrophe is that there are 800 families trapped in Homs. It will be an unprecedented massacre if they take over the district,’ Abu Bilal told AFP via Skype.
A security official told AFP on Monday that the army hoped to eliminate the last pockets of resistance in Homs and the nearby town of Qusayr by the end of the week to free up troops for battle zones in the north, such as Aleppo.
In Paris, UN chief Ban urged a unilateral truce by Assad’s regime.
‘I have conveyed to the Syrian government (a) strong message that they should immediately declare a unilateral ceasefire,’ said Ban, addressing a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande.
Ban urged ‘the opposition forces to agree to this unilateral ceasefire when and if the Syrian government declares it,’ and called on countries supplying arms to both sides to stop in order to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.
In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of retaliation to Syria’s ‘aggressive position.’
‘It has become inevitable for our armed forces to retaliate in kind... as the Syrian administration maintains its aggressive position,’ he told lawmakers.
He spoke as Turkish armed forces chief of staff General Necdet Ozel was inspecting troops on a tour of the heavily fortified border region after a number of shells landed on Turkish soil, including one strike that killed five civilians last week.
After the deadly shelling in Akcakale village on Wednesday, Turkey’s parliament gave the government the green light to use military force if necessary against one-tie ally Syria.
Turkey bombarded Syrian army positions again on Monday after a shell hit another border town.
‘Troops loyal to the Assad administration are shelling our territory... We are retaliating in kind. We are currently doing whatever the rules of engagement require us to do,’ said Erdogan, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of Assad’s regime.
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned in Brussels against the dangers of the conflict in Syria escalating, saying alliance member Turkey had shown commendable restraint in response to shelling of its border area.
‘Obviously Turkey has a right to defend herself within international law,’ Rasmussen said, noting that the alliance too has ‘all necessary plans in place to protect and to defend Turkey if necessary.’
The Observatory says more than 32,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the revolt against Assad erupted in March last year.
Turkish president says "worst case" unfolding in Syria
By Hamdi Istanbullu
Tue Oct 9, 2012, 7:10am EDT
GUVECCI, Turkey (Reuters) -
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Monday the "worst-case scenarios" were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would do everything necessary to protect itself, as its army fired back for a sixth day after a shell from Syria flew over the border.
Gul said the violence in Turkey's southern neighbor, where a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has evolved into a civil war that threatens to draw in regional powers, could not go on indefinitely and Assad's fall was inevitable.
"The worst-case scenarios are taking place right now in Syria ... Our government is in constant consultation with the Turkish military. Whatever is needed is being done immediately as you see, and it will continue to be done," Gul said.
"There will be a change, a transition sooner or later ... It is a must for the international community to take effective action before Syria turns into a bigger wreck and further blood is shed, that is our main wish," he told reporters in Ankara.
Turkey's armed forces have bolstered their presence along the 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria in recent days and have been responding in kind to gunfire and shelling spilling across from the south, where Assad's forces have been battling rebels who control swathes of territory.
Turkey's Chief of Staff, General Necdet Ozel, travelled to the southern city of Adana to inspect the region patrolled by Turkey's 2nd Army, which protects the border with Syria, the military said on its website.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the escalation of the conflict along the Turkey-Syria border, as well as the impact of the crisis on Lebanon, were "extremely dangerous".
"The situation in Syria has dramatically worsened. It is posing serious risks to the stability of Syria's neighbors and the entire region," he told a conference in Strasbourg, France.
Ban said U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would be heading back to the region this week.
The exchanges with Turkey mark the most serious cross-border violence in Syria's revolt against Assad, which began in March last year with peaceful protests for reform and has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones.
"From now on, every attack on us will be responded to immediately. Every attack that targets our sovereignty, our security of life and property will find its response," Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc said after a cabinet meeting.
Parliament last week authorized the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders although government officials said the move was meant as a deterrent rather than a "war mandate".
"Turkey will decide itself when the situation necessitates acts mentioned in the motion the parliament passed last week. Nobody should think war will follow a parliament approval ... but we are more sensitive about our independence and sovereignty than most countries," Arinc said.
Turkey's Dogan news agency said some 25 warplanes had been sent to a military base in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, and reported military sources as saying this was in connection with Syria and cross-border anti-terror operations.
It said a large number of F-16 fighter planes landed at the base on Monday afternoon. Local sources confirmed there was heightened activity at the base but said this was related to operations against Kurdish militant bases in northern Iraq, not Syria.
Separately, a convoy of military vehicles, including tanks loaded on trucks, travelled to the town of Akcakale on Monday to be deployed on the border, Dogan reported.
Fighting further inside Syria also intensified on Monday.
Syrian government forces advanced for the first time in months into the rebel-held Khalidiya district in the besieged central city of Homs.
"They have occupied buildings that we were stationed in and we had to evacuate," a rebel fighter told Reuters by Skype.
Skirmishes on the Syrian side of the border have been escalating and it is unclear who fired the shells that have crossed into Turkey.
Damascus has said it fired into Turkey accidentally, but has failed to live up to pledges made last week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in Akcakale, to ensure no more ordnance flies across the border.
Turkey launched its latest retaliatory strike on Monday after a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed in countryside in the Turkish province of Hatay some 150-200 m (yards) inside the district of Hacipasa, a Turkish official told Reuters.
Further east, Syrian rebel sources in Raqqa province, which borders Akcakale, said they had seen five Turkish army trucks full of soldiers patrolling the border.
NATO member Turkey was once an ally of Assad's but turned against him after his violent response to the uprising, in which activists say 30,000 people have died.
Turkey has nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory, has given sanctuary to rebel leaders and has led calls for Assad to quit. Its armed forces are far larger than Syria's.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the weekend that a potential leader in an interim Syrian government could be Vice-President Farouq al-Shara.
Reports in August said Shara, a former foreign minister who was appointed vice president six years ago, had tried to defect to neighboring Jordan, but Syrian state media subsequently said he had never considered leaving.
"The opposition is inclined to accept these names. Farouq al-Shara has the ability to understand the system of the last 20 to 30 years," Davutoglu told the state broadcaster TRT.
"Farouq al-Shara did not get involved in the recent incidents, the massacre, in a very wise and conscientious attitude. But perhaps there is nobody who knows the system better than al-Shara."
(Reporting by John Irish in Paris, Mert Ozkan in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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